August 2005 // Volume 43 // Number 4 // Research in Brief // 4RIB3

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Consumer Knowledge and Perceptions About Organic Food

Oregon food shoppers' knowledge and perceptions about organic food were assessed in a statewide phone survey conducted 3 months after adoption of USDA's National Organic Program standards. Of the 637 interviewees, 77% reported household purchase of organic food in the past 6 months. Those with household members in environmental organizations were significantly more likely to purchase organic food frequently. About two-thirds gave positive word associations with "organic." Forty percent were aware that the USDA standards had gone into effect. Trust in the accuracy of the USDA organic label varied. Environmentally minded consumers are a potential organic market if trust is maintained.

Carolyn Raab
Professor, Food and Nutrition Specialist
Extension Family and Community Development

Deana Grobe
Research Associate, Family Policy Program
Human Development and Family Sciences

Oregon State University
Corvallis, Oregon


Organic is one of the fastest growing agricultural markets in the U.S. (Zehnder, Hope, Hill, Hoyle, & Blake, 2003). Respondents to a nationwide survey believed that organic foods are better for the environment (58%) and better for health (54%) (Whole Foods Market ®, 2004). In addition, 57% believed that buying and using organic products is better for supporting small and local farmers. An understanding of consumer perceptions and practices can be useful for marketing organic food to these potential customers.

Standards for foods identified as "organic" have differed around the country. The Oregon legislature passed the nation's first organic labeling law in 1973 (State of Oregon, 1973). These regulations prohibited use of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, rodenticides, and growth regulators for a minimum of 36 months prior to harvest. Neither processed nor non-processed foods could be labeled "organic" if there was pesticide residue in excess of standards.

The adoption of USDA's National Organic Standards in October 2002 (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2003) made organic food regulations uniform across the nation. The rules require "organic" food to be produced without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Standards for labeling a food "organic" were established.

We surveyed Oregon consumers 3 months after adoption of the USDA standards. Questions assessing their perceptions about organic food and knowledge about the new standards were included in a broader assessment of responses to a state ballot measure on labeling of genetically engineered foods (Raab & Grobe, 2003; Grobe & Raab, 2004). In wake of the ballot measure defeat, buying organic is an option for Oregon consumers wanting to know whether their food is genetically engineered or not.

Oregon Food Shopper Survey Methods

We participated in a statewide omnibus phone survey conducted in December 2002/January 2003 by the Oregon Survey Research Center at the University of Oregon. The survey of randomly selected Oregon households continued until 800 interviews were completed out of a sample frame of 3,990 (a response rate of 62% for the entire sample frame, taking into account refusals, no answers, and disconnections).

A subsample of 577 interviewees identified themselves as the primary food shopper in their household. An additional 60 indicated that household members shared shopping equally. We used this sub-sample of 637 interviewees with primary or shared shopping responsibilities in our data analysis.

Results and Discussion

A profile of the interviewees is shown in Table 1. Demographic characteristics are similar to Oregon's adult population as a whole. In 15% of the interviewees' households, someone belonged to an environmental club, group, or organization (such as the Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, or Greenpeace). Fifty-seven percent of interviewees reported usually thinking about the impact of their purchases on the environment.

Table 1.
Profile of Oregon Food Shopper Interviewees (N = 637)


69.4% Female
30.6 Male


90.5% White/Caucasian
2.6 Mixed race
2.3 Latino, Hispanic
1.9 American Indian/Native American
1.6 Asian American/Pacific Islander
0.7 Black/African American
0.4 Other


Mean 48.7 +/- 16.6 years
Range 18-91 years


8.1 % No high school diploma/GED
24.5 High school graduates/GED
32.6 Some college
10.5 Associate's degree
24.3 Bachelor's degree


14.0% Less than $18,000
12.6 $18,000-$25,000
24.0 $25,000-40,000
26.6 $40,000-70,000
13.3 $70,000-100,000
9.5 Over $100,000


35.0% Urban
34.6 Suburban
22.6 Rural
7.8 Farms/ranches


57.3% Employed
22.2 Retired
5.9 Keeping house
4.5 Looking for work/unemployed
4.5 Disabled/unable to work
3.9 Student
1.1 Volunteer work only
0.6 Something else


55.0% No children under 18 years at home
45.0 Children under 18 years at home


Organic Word Association

What are consumers' perceptions of "organic food"? About two-thirds of our sample of food shoppers gave positive word associations (Figure 1). This positive response of many shoppers suggests that there might be a favorable climate for an organic food marketing campaign.

"Chemical-free" was the most commonly mentioned word association (about 40% of respondents). Next in frequency were specific types of food (mentioned by about 15% of the respondents.) In decreasing frequency were "natural"/"homegrown," "healthier"/"more nutritious," "earth friendly," "clean"/"pure, and "fresh."

Figure 1.
Positive Word Association with Organic

Positive word associations with the organic.

Note: More frequently cited words by respondents are indicated by a larger font size.


Fewer than 20% of our interviewees mentioned negative associations with the word "organic." About 40% of these mentioned the cost/expense. Other negative word associations related to lack of trust/questionable/credibility, scam/rip-off/fraud, stupid/not necessary, and fake food/gross.

The Hartman group also found that the word "organic" conjures up a wide variety of images and beliefs for consumers (Barry, 2002). "Earth-friendly," "grassroots," "synergistic," and "alive" were positive core word associations of their consumers. Other positive words included "chemical-free," "safe," "whole," and "simple". "Trendy" was a negative core word associated with organic food. Other negative words included "inconsistent," "irregular," "small," "spoils easily," and "wilted."

As in our survey, the Hartman group identified cost as a negative perception of "organic." According to Gardyn (2002), there is a common perception that organic foods are difficult to find and much more expensive than conventional foods. The 2003 Whole Foods Market ® Organic Foods Trend Tracker survey of 1,000 adults nationwide (Whole Food Market ®, 2003) reported that price remains the biggest barrier for consumers who don't eat organic food. The 2004 survey found that 73% of adults believe organics are too expensive (Whole Foods Market, 2004). If cost is a valid concern, organic marketing campaigns might focus on benefits provided (e.g., environmental.)

Organic Food Purchase in Oregon

Household purchase of organic food during the past 6 months was reported by 77% of our Oregon food shoppers. Frequency of purchase varied (Figure 2). This period covered the summer months, when organic fruits and vegetables are available in farmers' markets, U-Pick fields, and grocery stores in many parts of Oregon. Those with household membership in environmental organizations were significantly more likely to purchase organic food frequently (p < . 0001) than those without membership. Those who considered the impact of their purchases on the environment were also more likely to purchase organic (p < 0.0001) than those not reporting consideration of the impact.

Figure 2.
Purchase Frequency of Organic Foods in the Past Six Months by Oregon Food Shoppers

Frequency of organic food purchases in the last 6 months.

The interviewees reported buying a variety of organic foods. Thirty-two percent purchased organic food in just one of five categories (fruit, vegetables, meat, grain, other); 42% purchased in two of the five categories. Only 6% purchased from all five categories. About three-fourths purchased organic vegetables, and two thirds purchased fruit. Organic dairy products were purchased by about one-quarter of respondents; fewer purchased meat and other products (such as grains).

Organic food use was similar to the Walnut Acres/RoperASW survey finding (Gardyn, 2002) that 70% of Americans had purchased an organic food product at least once. Of these, 32% reported buying organic food occasionally, and 16% bought it every time they shop. People living in the West were more likely to be purchasers. Organic fruits and vegetables were purchased most often.

The 2003 Whole Foods Market ® Organic Foods Trends Tracker Survey found that 54% of Americans had tried organic foods; 29% claimed to be consuming more organic food and beverages than 1 year before (Whole Foods Market ®, 2003). This was supported by the 2004 survey findings that 54% of the 1,000 respondents had tried organic food and beverages; nearly 10% used organic products regularly or several times per week. (Whole Foods Market ®, 2004). Fruits and vegetables were sought by 68% of organic food users. Other organic purchases included bread or baked goods (26%) and nondairy beverages (26%).

A 2004 American Demographics/Harris Interactive survey (Murphy, 2004) found that organic or "natural " food is purchased "always" (2%), "often" (12%), "sometimes" (33%), "rarely" (34%), and "never" (15%). Thirty-nine percent "always" or "often" looked at labels to find out how food was produced.

Awareness of New Standards

Will USDA's National Organic Standards influence consumer purchases? Forty percent of our Oregon food shoppers were aware of standards that had gone into effect in October 2002 (3 months before the survey) (Figure 3). As shown, over half reported having "a lot" or "some" knowledge about the standards. Their awareness was not significantly associated with frequency of organic food purchase in the last six months. The standards had been in effect for only three of those months, however.

Figure 3.
Level of Knowledge About National Organic Standards by Oregon Food Shoppers

Knowledge level of national organic standards.

More recent national surveys have suggested that the USDA standards can affect organic purchases of some consumers. The 2003 Whole Foods Market ® survey found that 29% of Americans believe that the new logo and/or clearer labeling required by USDA has had an impact on their decisions to purchase organic food (Whole Foods Market ®, 2003). Nearly one-half (47%) of those claiming to consume more organics than 1 year ago felt that clear, credible organic labeling makes them more inclined to purchase organic food.

Trust in the accuracy of the USDA organic label might influence consumer responses. Oregon food shoppers' trust in the accuracy of the new labeling varied: 18.9% reported "a lot" of trust, 50.8% "some", 23.0% "a little", and 7.4% "not at all". Trust was not associated with frequency of household organic food purchases in the last 6 months.

An understanding of what the organic standards entail might also influence consumer responses. Of our sample of food shoppers, those who knew "a lot" or "something" about the new USDA standards, 68.5% knew that genetically engineered foods can't be labeled "organic" under the new standards; 56.9% knew that irradiated foods can't be labeled "organic."

According to the national 2003 Whole Food Market ® survey, 76% of consumers who buy organics agree that they are products without genetically modified organisms; 69% agree that they are products without irradiation (Whole Foods Market ®, 2003). The higher awareness could suggest that consumers became more knowledgeable after our survey. It could also suggest differential results nationwide compared to the state of Oregon.

Conclusions and Implications

As with consumers nationwide, our findings show that many Oregonians choose organic foods at least some of the time. Their perceptions of "organic" are both positive (such as chemical free) and negative (such as cost). Although perceptions may not be supported by research, they do describe viewpoints that could potentially influence purchases. Marketing campaigns focused on perceived benefits of organic foods (such as "earth friendly," "natural," and "home grown") have the potential to counter negative perceptions such as cost. Maintaining good product quality can enhance positive consumer perceptions.

Our findings suggest that organic food purchasers in Oregon tend to be environmentally conscious. If so, appealing to this value might be an effective marketing strategy. Consumers with concerns about irradiation or genetic engineering could also be targeted to encourage use of organic as an alternative.

A marketing campaign could promote the consistent national standard for "organic." The potential impact of the USDA standards on organic food purchase merits research, however. Although there was no link between Oregon consumers' awareness of the new USDA standards and the frequency of their organic food purchases, enough time had not lapsed to measure true impact. The October 2002 adoption of the standards was at the end of Oregon's seasonal availability of fruits and vegetables, the most common organic food purchases.

Lack of visibility could affect consumer awareness of the new USDA organic standards. Labeling has the potential to increase consumer confidence. Display of the USDA organic certification seal on packages or signage could increase consumer awareness.

Oregon consumers' trust in the accuracy of the USDA organic labeling might influence its impact. Further study would be warranted to assess their perceptions now that the standards have been in effect for over 2 years. If consumers perceive that interpretation of the National Organic Program standards weakens stringent requirements, this might lessen their trust and willingness to buy organic. Open communication, such as public reports on compliance and enforcement of the standards, might increase consumer trust. This could be conveyed in an organic food marketing campaign that emphasizes trustworthiness of the label.


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Murphy, R. M. (2004). Truth or scare. American Demographics, 26(2), 26-32.

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